Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Why we shouldn’t arrest kids, or adults, for cursing or being obnoxious

South Carolina’s disturbing schools law means students can be handcuffed and hauled off to jail for talking back to a teacher, if the teacher considers that “obnoxious.”
South Carolina’s disturbing schools law means students can be handcuffed and hauled off to jail for talking back to a teacher, if the teacher considers that “obnoxious.” AP

I HAD JUST LEFT the home of a friend who lives in one of those gated communities that rents a security guard to enforce its speed limit when I saw the blue lights flashing behind me.

I pulled over, and the security guard walked up and asked if I realized I was driving 35 in a 30 zone.

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After Spring Valley: Can we find some common ground on school discipline?

A belch in gym class, then handcuffs and a lawsuit

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“Oh my goodness; you must be kidding,” I said, allowing him to believe that I meant, “I can’t believe I was driving so ridiculously fast.”

Of course what I actually meant was: “I can’t believe you’re wasting my time stopping me for driving five miles over the speed limit, when we both know that you’re not going to write a ticket because I would go to court and the magistrate would laugh you out of the courtroom.”

But I didn’t say that because you just don’t say such things. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t get carried away and throw in a profanity, which would have invited him to get carried away with South Carolina’s ridiculously overbroad disorderly conduct law.

No matter how sweetly you smile, no matter how calmly you deliver your words, if you insult an officer’s mother or suggest that he perform a biologically impossible act, chances are good that he will charge you with a misdemeanor violation of S.C. 16-17-530 and haul you off to jail.

Now, to be clear, we should never say such things, to police or to anyone else. We should never even think such things. But there’s a universe of difference between “we should never say such things” and “we should be arrested for saying such things.”

You or I probably could survive an arrest. We’d be embarrassed, but we’d pay our $100 fine, and go on with our lives.

But imagine the person arrested for suggesting a very warm place the officer might want to visit is a 14-year-old student. She has authority problems, and the folks at the Department of Juvenile Justice recommend that she spend some time behind bars. She was already struggling in school, she struggles more at DJJ, and when she’s released, she can’t readjust, and long before graduation day, she drops out of school.

You don’t have to imagine that. It happens in South Carolina. All the time.

Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit contending that the disorderly conduct law, at least as applied to children, is unconstitutionally vague. So too, the lawsuit said, is the state’s disturbing schools statute, which carries much heftier penalties.

I don’t know if the laws are unconstitutional or not.

But I know this: It should not be a crime to “act in an obnoxious manner” at school, or to “use obscene or profane language” in public.

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Columbia student files suit to void law used to arrest her

Use police in schools for crimes, not discipline, SC board says

Read the ‘disorderly conduct law’ at 16-17-530

Read the ‘disturbing schools’ law at 16-17-420

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I know this too: The lawsuit should have never been brought — because our Legislature should have already changed the laws.

If lawmakers didn’t realize how excessive the disturbing school law was, they found out in October, when a Spring Valley student was tossed across a classroom, charged with disturbing schools and hauled off to jail — for refusing to hand her cell phone to a teacher. (The officer was fired for the tossing part.) Another student was charged for videotaping and complaining about the incident.

Yet an entire legislative session later, the law remains unchanged. And lawmakers have to fight a federal lawsuit.

And yes, it is awful that there are parents who don’t teach their children to do what teachers and police and other authority figures tell them to do. I wish our schools did not have to deal with that.

But what’s the alternative? We send the kids to jail, and their chance of graduating from high school plummets. And their chance of becoming deadbeats, or criminals, skyrockets. And the rest of us support them, or are victimized by them.

No, the world should not work that way. But it does. You get get angry about it all you want, but that won’t change it. One thing that can change it is reducing the number of kids who become deadbeats and criminals, and raise another generation of deadbeats and criminals. One way to do that is to stop sending kids to jail for sassing, for cursing, for doing the things that — when I was a kid — only got you sent to the principal’s office.

If a kid brings a weapon to school — a real weapon, not a butter knife — then yes, he needs to be arrested. If she pounds another kid to a pulp, she needs to be arrested. If he steals money out of the teacher’s purse, he needs to be arrested.

If she refuses to hand over her cell phone, or acts out in class, or talks back when an adult tells her to be quiet, she needs to be disciplined, by school officials.

I’m glad the state Board of Education is writing regulations that say school resource officers should only intervene in what we all believe should be crimes. But, frankly, the language of the proposed regulation is itself a little vague.

And as long as the disturbing schools statute is on the books, students are subject to being arrested for sassing. And as long as the no-profanity law is on the books, students — and the rest of us — are subject to being arrested for cursing.

It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to make us change that.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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